Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Ascension Day (Acts 1:1-12)

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The Ascension is one of those stories I’ve never quite known what to do with. I mean, the theme is clear – the resurrected, eternal Jesus leaves Earth in preparation for the next phase of the story, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But I just can’t picture it without having questions – Jesus physically goes up into the sky? But we know Heaven isn’t somewhere in orbit, right? Add to that art’s tendency to make the scene look at little odd and we’re left with a narrative I don’t really ‘get’.

But I’m British, and we have a monarch, and so the answer was there in front of me all the time. Because while you can ascend into space, you can also ascend to a throne. The Ascension is all part of Jesus leaving his physical interaction with Earth and (re)taking up his divine lordship over the universe.

Paul knew this. In Ephesians 4 he draws a connection between the Ascension and Psalm 68. This Psalm is basically a musical history of Israel, the people singing it as part of a liturgical parade. Verses 15-18 talk about God taking his throne in the Temple, on Mount Zion; here, on different mountain, Jesus also ascends to his throne.

There’s something going on here that’s directly relevant to us today. Psalm 68 talks about the triumphant king receiving gifts, but Paul interprets that in the sense of give-and-take; he gives gifts as well. The king takes his throne, and then he empowers his subjects to build his kingdom.

I’ll make a confession, here and now – I find it difficult to appreciate that the King of the Universe is on my side. Oh sure, I accept it in a general sense – Christ died for us all – but the idea that the divine strengthens us? I know the theory, but I struggle on with my own limited strength and resources. And then I get tired and frustrated and wonder why God doesn’t seem to be helping me.

Well, maybe he is helping – it’s not like I’ve ever gone under, after all. Or maybe it’s because I don’t quite know how to leave something at the foot of Christ’s throne. It’s probably a failure of trust, or maybe a fear of losing control. Letting go is an act of will – sometimes it’s not like dropping a possession, it’s like giving up an addiction. Maybe one of the first gifts some of us need to ask for is the gift of letting go.

That’s all very negative though; let’s end with a positive. The king lavishes gifts on us, making us prophets and teachers and leaders, musicians and writers and artists and artisans. Some of us can preach to a stadium full of people, some of us make an awesome cup of tea. Whatever they are, we’re given those gifts to build up the kingdom.

On Ascension Day, Jesus rose to the throne of heaven and released the Holy Spirit to turn his followers in the builders of the Kingdom. That work is on going.

And the King is on our side.